Music

Morgan Toney's breakthrough year: meet the 22-year-old Mi'kmaq fiddler fusing ancestral songs and Celtic tunes

A virtual show made him an overnight success, then he recorded and released his debut — all during COVID.

A virtual show made him an overnight success, then he recorded and released his debut — all during COVID

Mi'kmaq musician Morgan Toney blends fiddling with traditional songs | The Intro

1 year ago
Duration 15:28
Morgan Toney joins Saroja on this week's episode of The Intro.

Before he was an emerging fiddle sensation, 22-year-old Mi'kmaq musician Morgan Toney was a drummer. 

"When I learned how to play the drums correctly, it was all about timing," Toney tells CBC Music over Zoom backstage from his show at Destination Cape Breton. "I had to make sure my timing was on point. When I threw the drums out and picked up the fiddle, I noticed that my timing was pretty good. At first, my playing wasn't great; I played out of key as usual."

The three different time metres of Celtic or fiddle music — march, strathspey, and reel — were well suited to Toney's own natural talent.

"It's all a transition from each different form and someone told me my transitions, my timing was perfect," Toney says. "So I have to say the drums have definitely helped me with my rhythm, with my swing. I have a different style than most fiddlers, like it's a swing-y type, it makes you want to get up and dance and stuff. Playing the drums helped me out a lot with that."

It might seem strange to say that perfect timing has continued to be part of Toney's magic, particularly since he's had to forge his career almost entirely during COVID-19. But, musically at least, he's managed to make the most out of the pandemic so far. 

A couple years after picking up the fiddle and turning heads both at school and at home on the We'koqma'q and Wagmatcook First Nations, Toney met producer, musician and songwriter Keith Mullins, who was enthralled by Toney's unique sound, mixing Mi'kmaq traditional songs and influences with Celtic music. Mullins wanted to record Toney immediately, but then the pandemic struck and everyone's existence changed overnight. 

Toney and Mullins had to adapt, and they did so quickly and confidently. First, Toney made his virtual debut at the 2020 Celtic Colours Festival last October, opening the massively popular event alongside fiddle veteran Ashley MacIsaac. Toney caused a stir among fiddle fans and became the talk of the festival. Toney and Mullins then wrote, recorded, crowdfunded and released Toney's debut album, First Flight, in the space of just a few months. 

"When I was playing fiddle pre-COVID, it was OK but I wasn't really comfortable playing in front of people," Toney says. "And then after I got comfortable, COVID-19 came and there was none of that there. What was surreal is us making an album in the pandemic times. It wasn't difficult, but there was a lot of work. For me, it seemed impossible, but we got it done."

A few years ago, Toney barely knew how to hold a fiddle; now he wants to lead a new generation of Mi'kmaq people back to the small stringed instrument, and forge a new path forward.

"There's not a lot of Mi'kmaq fiddlers right now, [compared] to, say, 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago," Toney explains. "I don't want to say it, but it feels like a few of us, like myself, are leading the charge. Maybe myself at the moment. And I'm just trying to make sure like — I'm going to tell you a story. My great grandfather played the fiddle. I didn't know that until my uncle told me about him. And three of my late great uncles played fiddle as well. He told me about them as well. So that kind of motivated me to keep going."

But there is pressure, too. Using ancestral songs, including the Mi'kmaq Honor Song or "The Ko'jua" on First Flight, singing in Mi'kmaq, acting as a steward of the music and carrying that forward into this moment alongside Celtic music is a cultural responsibility of which Toney is acutely aware. "Right now, where I come from, Wagmatcook, there's only maybe two fiddlers in the entire community, including myself. So it's definitely a lot of pressure. Well, I don't want to say it's pressure. But you know, people are like, looking at me and saying, 'OK, keep doing what you're doing.'"

Morgan Toney | Ko'jua | The Intro

1 year ago
Duration 4:02
Morgan Toney performs "Ko'jua" on The Intro.

Toney, who is a youth leader, takes it upon himself to visit elders and people at home on both of his reserves, playing songs for those who crave some company and entertainment and sustenance, cultural or otherwise. His community is just 900 people, he says, and he concedes that he'd describe himself as "well known."

"When you go into Mabou, Nova Scotia, they have the sign, 'Home of the Rankin Family,'" Toney says. "And I told my Chief, 'Can we have a sign like that? Chief, 30 years' time, could you make a sign for me that says 'Home of Morgan Toney, Wagmatcook First Nation.' So he told me, we got this whole bunch of programs in reserve, right, there's a lot of fishing programs that people go on these buses. He said, 'You know what, Morgan? 30 years time, I'll put your name on the side of our crab bus.'" Toney laughs. 

It's a vastly different future than Toney likely envisioned for himself growing up in We'koqma'q. He recalls being a shy kid with just one or two friends, but things changed once he moved the 15 minutes away to Wagmatcook. On his first day of school after his move, Toney met the school principal, Marjorie Pierro, whom Toney describes as very spiritual and traditional, at least in terms of culture. 

"So that very first day, I walked up to [Marj] and she was smudging, you know, and students and staff went up to Marj to get their daily smudge and I went, too. On that very first day, I came into the talking circle, and she was singing the Mi'kmaq Honor Song, which is number four in the album. But I didn't really sing, you know, I didn't know that I could sing because I nearly never tried."

Morgan Toney | Msit No'kmaq | The Intro

1 year ago
Duration 3:28
Morgan Toney performs "Msit No'kmaq" on The Intro.

Toney asked Pierro to teach him to sing the Mi'kmaq Honor Song. Eventually, Toney says, "I kind of found my voice. And at first, it was rough. But experimenting and finding where my voice sits comfortably in range, right? I'm  right in the middle, so I started singing in that range, and I just kept going,"

Pierro got him started, but it was Mullins who encouraged Toney to stretch far outside his comfort zone.

"I never thought that I would be co-writing songs with Keith Mullins, but it happened," Toney says. "So I'm really happy because Keith was the one that kind of pushed me to keep singing. Because I just wanted First Flight to be a fiddle album, I didn't want me singing on there. He shocked me, you know, he pushed me, and kept saying, 'Let's write a song. Let's write a song.' So I'm comfortable with my voice now. I really am. I'm proud of myself that we got to write amazing tracks like 'Msit No'kmaq,' 'Alasutamaqn' and 'The Colour Red.' That's a gift that I never thought that I would have, and that's all because of Keith."

Having Mullins in his corner has helped Toney realize many of his wildest musical dreams. But even with Mullins' support, and Toney's Mi'kmaq community, as well as legions of fiddle fans, the fiddle haters are everywhere — even in his friend circle and at home. But Toney is winning over non-fiddle fans every day, including fellow fiddler, Mary Beth Carty's mom, and Toney's own mother, who is sick and for whom he recently composed a tune, which you can listen to below. It means a lot for Toney to share his music in this way with the people he loves. 

"Mary Beth's mom, for example, does not like fiddle music," Toney says with a laugh. "But when she got to hear me, she was in awe. And it's like, 'Wow, I don't like fiddle music, but I like his music.' My mom was not a fan of fiddle music as well. My mom's in the hospital right now fighting a brain tumour. She wasn't a big fan of fiddle music but now she loves it. She tunes into this local radio station on Sunday nights just to listen to it. And my friends as well. They heard of fiddle music and were not interested until I started to play for them. Here's what I do: every time I have a show, I try to take one of my friends with me, just to get them that feel of what it's like onstage. They don't go to shows; they stay at home and play video games. I take them with me to a show and then they're like, 'Wow, your music's great. I kind of like fiddle music now.' So that means a whole lot."

Toney is also focused on the longtail of First Flight. Conventional touring, as one would normally do after releasing their debut album, isn't really possible right now, but he says people are coming to him and Mullins with festival offers and they're eagerly jumping at every chance they get.

"That album opened up a lot of doors, and the fiddle opened up a lot of doors for me," Toney says. "I'm just gonna keep going and going and going see where it takes me. I'm not stopping, you know? [There's] a lot of energy in me." 

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